Poet Rajathi Salma's home in Chennai is not as expansive as her oeuvre. It is a two-bedroom apartment, the kind preferred by the middle class. Her husband, Abdul Malik, surfs channels on television as he waits for her to come home from a meeting. “Did she call?” Malik asks his sister-in-law. “When will she come back home to have lunch? It is already two!” He is told that she will be home in 30 minutes.
The bookshelf has stacks of Tamil translations of works by Russian greats―from Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky to Anna Akhmatova. Salma's work bears their mark. A decade and a half since she burst into the Tamil literary scene, the 45-year-old is known for her profound takes on women empowerment.
“I certainly did not look at writing as a career,” says Salma, as she joins her husband for lunch. Malik does not ask her why she is late. Instead, he wants to know how the meeting went. “Things have changed at home,” Salma tells me after a while. “Now, I cannot even imagine my past life in my village.”
Life has changed indeed. Salma does not wear a veil anymore. There was a time when she had to content herself with viewing the world through an iron-barred window in her home. Now, she leads a busy life, scuttling between various literary events in India and abroad. She is no longer the puppet of her family or of her husband.
Salma was born in a conservative Muslim family at Tuvarankurichi village near Trichy. An avid reader, she could not pursue her interest in literature because of the oppressive rules in her home. She was barred from even leaving her room when there were male visitors in the house.
Her first act of rebellion was stepping into a cinema theatre with her cousin and a male friend to watch Avalude Ravukal, a Malayalam movie that explored the life a teenage prostitute. Salma had no clue what the film was about, but she remembers being happy at sneaking into the theatre. “But that was the end of everything,” she says.
When her parents came to know of her adventure, they were furious. They barred her from going to school and locked her up in a small room. Much to her dismay, her friend got off scot-free, while she spent days cut off from the outside world.
But, even then, her urge to read did not stop. She read whatever she could lay her hands on. Much of it were newspapers wrapped around vegetables, often retrieved from the waste bin. Her only link to the world was a small, iron-barred window in her room, which offered her a view of the road that led to the burial ground nearby. “There was no one I could see, other than my own family,” says Salma.
The days spent in that room, though painful, helped her creativity blossom. Her friend, with whom she had watched the movie, got her books from the village library. That is how she was introduced to Russian literature. “Dostoevsky and Tolstoy helped me figure out a new path,” she says.
All of this happened before Salma turned 15. The books she read had made her different from girls of her age. Her heroes were Che Guevara and Nelson Mandela, not film stars. And, she did not want to get married.
Salma, however, had been betrothed to Malik, one of her relatives, at age 12. She staved off marriage for a decade. But her mother ultimately succeeded in persuading her by feigning a heart attack. At age 22, Salma wrote her first poem, 'Oppandham', to give vent to her anger and frustration.
After marriage her name was changed to Rokkaiah Begum. Her passion for writing, however, was unchanged. Hiding in the toilet, she would write poems on bits of paper, torn from calendars and notebooks. She always hid them, but often they were found and destroyed by Malik, who would then go on to hurt her by stubbing out cigarettes on her body. “Every night was a horror. I would hug my son, fearing that my husband would throw acid on my face,” says Salma.
Help came in the form of her mother, who would smuggle out every bit of paper Salma wrote on. The poems, eventually, were published in a Tamil weekly. “Seeing the depth of my poems, the editor gave me more opportunities,” says Salma. The letters from the editor were also smuggled to her by her mother.
In 2000, her first collection of poems, Oru Maalaiyum Innoru Maalaiyum, was published. For Salma, things really began to change the following year, when seats in the Tuvarankurichi panchayat election were reserved for women. A member of the DMK, Malik was forced to field his wife in the civic polls. For Salma, it was a lifeline. She began campaigning, chairing meetings and educating women in her own community. The elections helped her break free of Malik's control. In 2002, Salma was invited to an international conference on women's issues held in Sri Lanka. In 2006, she contested the Marungapuri assembly constituency, but lost, reportedly because of foul play by her male party colleagues. Some things never change for women, she rues.
Salma's literary career has soared in the past decade. In 2006, the year she was nominated chairman of the state social welfare board, the National Book Trust of India nominated her to the Frankfurt Book Fair. A year later, Salma became the featured author at the first Norman Cutler conference of South Asian Literature at the University of Chicago.
People in her village now recognise her not as Rokkaiah or Rajathi, but as the writer Salma, known for her bold, sarcastic and probing works on gender and sexuality. Her debut novel Irandaam Jamangalin Kathai (The Hours Past Midnight in English) was long-listed for The Man Asian Booker Prize. It captures Muslim women and their oppression through the eyes of a girl called Raafia. Ask Salma who Raafia is, and she says, “It is me. Every character in the novel is a real-life character.”
In 2013, British filmmaker Kim Longinotto brought Salma's life to the screen. The award-winning documentary has been screened in eleven countries across the globe. The latest addition to Salma's oeuvre is Kanavu Velipanayam, a travelogue describing her experiences in 20 countries.
Her writings have brought her worldwide acclaim. But, perhaps, what gives her the most joy is how things have changed at home. Malik is no longer the tyrant he was. He is now the proud husband of a liberated woman.